Nextdoor Tests Changes that Seek to End Racial Profiling (Opinion)

To discourage racial profiling, Nextdoor turned to city and community leaders in Oakland and also received input from Stanford associate psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt, a MacArthur "Genius" grant winner and expert in how deeply rooted biases affect law enforcement.

by Martha Ross, East Bay Times / June 2, 2016
Nextdoor's new polling feature now lets users poll their neighbors and share results with friends. Nextdoor

(TNS) -- A few weeks ago, I was gratified to read that the neighborhood networking site Nextdoor was making changes to discourage users from racial profiling.

Those changes, as described in an Associated Press story, are designed to stop users from rushing to label people of color spotted in their neighborhoods as "suspicious" -- when they are doing nothing more than walking or driving down the street.

Ever since joining Nextdoor two years ago, I've had a love/hate relationship with the site. I love it for giving neighbors in my East Bay suburb a place to help one another find lost cats and dogs, to share recommendations about the best local handyman or to learn about a community-wide garage sale. And, for the most part, the posts warning about "suspicious activity" have been useful in a traditional neighborhood watch way -- letting people know about how to prevent holiday package thefts or detailing recent car break-ins on a nearby street.

But every once in a while, I've seen the kind of post that has earned Nextdoor bad press, including from me. In one case, a neighbor boasted about how he called police on an African-American man who was knocking on doors, asking people about real estate. As the responding officer found, the man was not a burglar casing homes but, in fact, someone who indeed worked in real estate. What made me especially queasy about the post was how other neighbors had chimed in with comments, praising the neighbor for his vigilance.

I guess things were worse in some gentrifying Oakland neighborhoods. According to the East Bay Express, someone posted a photo of a black boy walking his dog, saying the police should be called because he failed to pick up his dog's poop.

Aside from the obvious concerns in our post-Ferguson era, these posts are worrisome in other ways. In my neighborhood, they have provoked online arguments that don't lead to better understanding, just create hard feelings. There are those, like me, who are turned off by the fear-mongering and potential racism. On the other side are those who decry "political correctness" and say it squelches common sense and people's rights to be safe and secure in their homes.

It turns out that Nextdoor executives themselves had grown increasingly uneasy with these posts. That's why the San Francisco-based company, which operates in 90,000 neighborhoods across the United States, recently announced changes in how people create them.

In a phone interview, CEO and co-founder Nirav Tolia told me that Nextdoor's mission is to use technology to build stronger and safer communities. Racial profiling undermines that mission, he said. He recognizes how debates on Nextdoor often "mirror" divisions in larger society. He said Nextdoor aspires to be a positive force in society.

To discourage racial profiling, Nextdoor turned to city and community leaders in Oakland and also received input from Stanford associate psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt, a MacArthur "Genius" grant winner and expert in how deeply rooted biases affect law enforcement.

The changes Nextdoor came up with -- which the company is testing in the Bay Area -- are actually pretty simple. Tolia said they recognize that people generally mean well, don't want to unfairly target specific groups but need guidance in how to pen truly informative posts.

Now, for any crime and safety alert, a prompt pops up, asking people to explain why someone's actions should be considered suspicious. They also are asked to provide detailed descriptions of possible offenders, including, yes, race, but also height, build, hair color, clothing and car make or model. Basically, the prompts get people to pause and think before they post and to provide details similar to what police list in their be-on-the-lookout alerts.

"To help your neighborhood, the information you post has to be useful, it has to be news you can use," Tolia said.

My neighbors had mostly positive things to say about the changes. However, after I shared a link to the AP story, others accused Nextdoor of caving in to political correctness and said it would discourage people from posting news about any suspicious activity involving people of color for fear of being labeled racist.

Things even got a little heated. One guy cheekily said he was glad to see Nextdoor making this move because he was "worried about hurting criminals' feelings." The cheeky guy apparently got his comment flagged as inappropriate, so he started another discussion thread slamming "censorship." A female neighbor accused me of being the flagger, saying I probably had the discussion closed because I didn't like people disagreeing with the information in the AP story.

For the record, I didn't flag anyone's post. And as Tolia explained, Nextdoor, as a private company, isn't a forum for free speech and can set its own tone for posts. But in the spirit of Tolia's stated purpose of building stronger connections between neighbors, I sent these two people private messages, asking if they wanted to share their concerns about political correctness and public safety.

I didn't hear back, but I talked to two other neighbors, Richard and Greg, who have previously expressed impatience with PC types like me.

Richard, who identifies himself as a "liberal Democrat," worried that the changes meant that a racial description would be banned.

"That just wouldn't be common sense," he said. "I think people are really far too ready to find things to be offended about."

But when he and Greg read up on the specific changes, they were fine with them.

"When I actually went on and read about them, I thought it sounded like a good idea,'' Greg said.

Following Nextdoor's changes, I'm feeling better about the site. We'll see how they work as far as reducing the number of questionable posts.

Meanwhile, I'm grateful that Nextdoor's news prompted me to reach out to some neighbors. The conversations with Richard and Greg turned out to be pretty pleasant, in part because I think we all learned we have more in common than we thought. But it was also nice to get off the site and to actually have a real-life dialogue with neighbors, instead of hashing things out online.

So, I have to give it to Nextdoor for giving a place to at least meet online. And it gives me some optimism the site might wind up delivering on its promise.

©2016 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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